The blazer is an iconic piece of menswear, and precisely for this very reason that I decided it was time for an extensive guide about this garment. The blazer is the central piece of any gentleman’s wardrobe, and ladies for that matter, though interestingly it means different things to different people. It also takes alternate forms in different situations, which makes it a truly remarkable garment. In the following, I will define a blazer, discuss its history, modern interpretations of it and elaborate on how to wear it best.
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What is a Blazer?
Let us start by first addressing this vexing question – what exactly is a blazer? One might be tempted to think it is any jacket that happens to be worn without matching pants. The Oxford American Dictionary describes it as a “sports jacket not worn with matching trousers.”
The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a coloured jacket worn by schoolchildren or sports players as part of a uniform, a plain jacket not forming part of a suit but considered appropriate for formal wear.” The Free Dictionary describes it as “A lightweight, often striped or brightly coloured sports jacket having pockets and notched lapels.” And the Merriam – Webster dictionary describes it as “a jacket that is worn over a shirt and that looks like a suit jacket but is not part of a suit.”
Clearly the general dictionaries are neither very specific nor complete, but a few things can be inferred from men’s clothing encyclopedias and from our assumptions of what a blazer is. In many countries, the term “blazer” is a synonymous for any jacket, especially in womenswear, but for the purpose of this article, we will use the technical definition:
- A stand alone jacket worn with trousers of a contrasting color, pattern or material.
- It is solid colored or has bold vividly colored stripes. No other patterns.
- Solid colors are almost exclusively a shade of navy blue, and very rarely bottle green, white or red, etc.
- May have contrasting piping / braiding / trim.
- Comes in double breasted 6×2, 6×3, 8×3 configurations or with a single breasted fasson.
- Very often part of a uniform of a school, college, club, or sports team
- The buttons are one of the two distinctive features of a blazer – usually buttons are made of contrasting mother of pearl, silver, pewter, brass or gilt embossed with anchor and a scroll (Nelson buttons) or a crest / logo of the school, college, club, sports team, association etc .
- If applicable, the second distinctive feature is the presence of the crest or badge of the school, college, club, sports team, association, etc. as the case may be on the breast pocket. The crest / badge often denotes the wearer’s individual position with the specific organization
- Usually made of navy blue serge; hopsack, worsteds or wool flannel are classic alternatives. Also available in fresco or linen for summer. Striped blazers are often made of wool flannel or cotton
History of the Blazer
If rightly describing the characteristics of the blazer was a daunting task, tracing its history proved to be no less daunting. There seem to be multiple theories of how the blazer got its name, with one source listing as many as ten! However, to narrow things down, the blazer as we know it today seems to have evolved from two origins.
Source No. 1 – Lady Margaret Boat Club
Members of the Lady Margaret Boat Club (founded in 1825, by twelve members of St. John’s College, Cambridge.) wore bright, scarlet red-colored flannel jackets, and since they blazed they were named Blazers. The club still exists today and keeps with the same tradition. Interestingly, gold buttons as well as piping are only reserved for certain members. Those with First May Colors are entitled to wear piping and have gold buttons on their blazer while First Lent or Second May Colors are entitled to wear silver buttons on their blazer only.
Gradually the term was used to denote jackets with a similar association much to the annoyance of the purists of the day, which can be seen in this spirited response from a reader of the London Daily News in 1889 – “In your article of to-day‥you speak of ‘a striped red and black blazer’, ‘the blazer’, also of ‘the pale toned’ ones.‥ A blazer is the red flannel boating jacket worn by the Lady Margaret, St. John’s College, Cambridge, Boat Club. When I was at Cambridge, it meant that and nothing else. It seems from your article that a blazer now means a colored flannel jacket, whether for cricket, tennis, boating or seaside wear.” In hindsight, we know that he lost the battle.
Source No. 2 – H.M.S. Blazer
The second story of how the blazer got its name is probably the more popular one, however, the timeline suggests that it is the latter of the two. In 1837, Queen Victoria decided to carry out an inspection of one of the vessels of the Royal Navy, named the H.M.S. Blazer. In his effort to impress the Queen, the Commander of the H.M.S Blazer decided to get new uniforms for his men as he felt that the current uniforms were hideous. After much deliberation, he settled on an outfit that included a double breasted jacket with brass Royal Navy buttons. It deserves mentioning that in those days standard uniforms for sailors in the Royal Navy did not exist, and many Commanders established their own standards of appearance for their sailors with little or no uniformity between ships. Sailors on the H.M.S. Blazer continued to wear jackets of blue and white stripes until at least 1845 before the sailors uniforms were standardized in 1857.
By or before 1889, the term blazer seems to have acquired its modern meaning as is apparent from the article in the London Daily News. It remains unknown when exactly it became part of the uniform of many schools and colleges throughout the British Empire.
School blazers today come in a wide range of colors, some with piping but most without, but always with the school badge and school buttons. Special badges or piping in ‘School Colors’ are awarded to students for certain achievements and sets them apart from the others. Many gentlemen’s clubs, especially sports and boating clubs, also have a similar system and these blazers are known as Club Blazers.
In the British Army and many armies of the Commonwealth nations, many Regimental Associations have their own blazers that are called Regimental Blazers. They usually come complete with Badge and regimental buttons and the colors, etc., vary from association to association. These are veteran associations and serving officers do not wear them (they stick to their various uniforms). Traditionally, Grenadier guards blazers only feature one cuff button, Coldstream Guards two, Scots Guards three, Irish Guards four and Welsh Guards five cuff buttons.
In this context the blazer could be considered a bit elitist as only members of these associations (which were elitist in varying degrees) were eligible to wear them. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore. The striped blazer was popular with dandies in the 1910s and 1920s, especially in the U.S. where Brooks Brothers was a major purveyor of striped blazers. Subsequently, it was adopted by the British Mods in the 1960s and became very popular among the fashionable younger set.
The blazer was also commonly associated with traditional gentlemen’s sports, once again adding to the elitist perception, however nowadays this has also almost disappeared, persisting only in cricket (and very occasionally on the tennis court) where it is considered customary for the captains to wear blazers with their team’s logo or national coat of arms during the tossing of the coin at the beginning of test matches. However in two sporting events today blazers continue to signify victory theses being for 1. the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia and 2. the Congressional Cup Regatta at the Long Beach Yacht Club. A green and a crimson blazer are awarded to the winners in respective events.
How to Combine a Blazer
Just like vests / waistcoats, a blazer is very variable and can be worn with a number of different trousers and shirt / tie combinations. In the following I would like to provide some inspiration so you can create your own blazer outfit.
White Flannel Trousers, Spectators & Ascot
For a classic 1930s look, a navy or striped blazer with white or off white flannel trousers looks great. With a light blue oxford shirt, and green tie or ascot and maybe a cornflower or Edelweiss boutonniere, you will look very debonair. If spectator shoes in brown and white are too much for you, white buckskin shoes or shades of brown , including oxblood red will work well.
Grey or Camel flannel & Tie
Likewise a very classic look can be achieved with grey flannel (light grey and charcoal are both fine) pants or shades of camel. Most men will opt for a crisp white shirt or a light blue one with a repp tie. Of course, pale shirt colors such as light green, lavender, pink or salmon will work just as well. For a winter outfit, a wool challis tie or real ancient madder silk tie are ideal. If you want to add a bit more texture, go for a grenadine or even better, a knit tie. For grey trousers, you should wear black oxford and light colored shades with brown. If you have a good understanding for color, I can also recommend bottle green shoes or oxblood.
Chinos in khaki really make navy pop, and with a shared military background it is also historically a good companion. No matter if you opt for a fuller cut with pleats and cuffs or if you prefer a flat front, narrower and shorter cut chinos go very well with a blazer. Don’t shy away from different colors: green, yellow, light blue, Nantucket Red… all work with a navy blazer.
Cavalry Twill & Corduroy
Most men won’t necessarily think of combining corduroy or cavalry twill trousers with a blazer but in burgundy, beige, rust or even a lighter brown – the combination can look quite stunning.
Some men think you can combine anything with a blazer and so you will see men wearing it with t-shirts or polo shirt. Whenever you wear a jacket, I recommend to go with long sleeves and a casual shirt or dress shirt will always beat a polo shirt and especially a t-shirt.
Instead of neckties, bow ties and ascots are always a good way to individualize your blazer outfit.
We briefly mentioned fabrics before but I want to highlight a few characteristics.
Navy Serge – The Classic
Navy serge is probably the most popular fabric. Usually made of merino wool, it has a characteristic twill structure and in my experience it is prone to get shiny in areas of frequent friction. For this reason, be careful when ironing or dry cleaning because too much heat or direct contact with the iron will also make it look shiny in an unpleasant way. If you want a shiny blazer, look for a wool mohair blend – that looks much more sophisticated.
Some men just wear regular navy worsted wool as it is used for business suits and while nothing is wrong with that, I find this kind of blazer rather boring. Instead, consider hopsack fabric. With its open weave structure, it will add more texture to your outfit but it is also much more prone to pulled threads. So if you have children, pets or often come in contact with items that could pull a thread, I’d shy away from hopsack.
For winter blazers, I recommend a true wool flannel if you don’t wear it too often and a worsted flannel if you want to get more wear out of the blazer. Both will wear a bit warmer and the flannel nap will make it more suitable for fall winter ensembles. For a more luxurious alternative fabric in winter, choose cashmere or vicuna. Even a green tweed could look magnificent if tailored into a blazer.
If you live in a place where it is always warm, you should look into linen or fresco blazers. Many men don’t like the wrinkles look of linen. If you are one of them, I can recommend fresco wholeheartedly.
Rowing / Regatta Blazers
Today, the Henley Royal Regatta is probably the number one event for Blazers worldwide. If you can’t make it, you should invest in the beautiful coffee table book Rowing Blazers by Jack Carlson with pictures of F.E. Castleberry, which is full of information about these kind of bold, striped of braided blazers. Find a selection of various boating blazer variations below.
As mentioned before, you have plenty of choices for buttons. While gold and to a lesser extent silver buttons are most common, buttons in white or grey mother of pearl can look just as stunning as light colored horn buttons. At the end of the day, it is entirely up to you what kind of buttons to wear, so think about it and select what feels right to you.
Double breasted jackets should have peaked lapels and either a 6×2, 6×3 or 8×3 silhouette, though a 4×2 or 4×1 can look good as well. Traditionally, double breasted blazers in navy had no vents but today most have side vents. Historically it would not make sense to have a middle vent since that was invented for horseback riding. While a classic blazer will feature flapped pockets but lately patch pockets have become rather popular.
For single breasted jackets I would also recommend side vents and either two or three buttons. I find patch pocket more natural but flapped pockets will work as well. In any case, go with a notched lapel. Due to its maritime roots, you will not see many blazer with action backs or belts as may know them from the Norfolk jacket.
When going for a custom garment, many men seem to go for a red lining. Personally, I think a solid green or yellow lining look spectacular when combined with a navy blazer. Also, solid navy looks particularly debonair with boutonnieres of all kinds.
One last piece of advice, it is best to avoid wearing a badge or crest unless one is attending a function hosted by your club / association. On the other hand, embossed buttons are de rigueur and they can be a great way to add a subtle, personal detail to your outfit.
Today, striped blazers are either associated with vintage 1920s outfits or specific clubs. If you want to stand out in a classic way, the striped blazer is certainly your best choice. In my experience you can still find them in England rather regularly – either in vintage shops or custom, whereas in the US they are more difficult to find and sometimes only available when movies like the Great Gatsby become the focus of the public eye.
Fit of a Blazer
Generally, a blazer should fit like a suit jacket and some men prefer for it to fit like a sport coat – meaning a little looser, and wider with a bit more length, but other than that nothing is special here and all rules such as the proper sleeve length apply to the blazer as well. In terms of canvas or shoulder padding most double breasted blazers will have a more structured canvas and some shoulder padding, however with the popularity of the Neapolitan jacket, you will now find more unlined blazers with little to no shoulder padding and very soft interlining. As always, there is no objective right or wrong: the only thing that matters is what looks good on you and makes you feel good.
Sometimes you will find the distinction of American, English and Italian silhouette.
- American is described as two buttons, single-breasted, navy blue with soft shoulders. Notch lapels, patch or flap pockets and a single vent.
- The English style has more structured shoulders in either single or double breasted, notched lapel in the case of single breast and peak lapels in case of the double breasted cut. It will have double vents in both cases. The single breasted will have three buttons.
- The Italian or European style differs from the others in that the fabric is usually of a lighter weight and the blazer is less structured.
Personally, I don’t really find these classifications particularly helpful and consider them a relic from the 1980s because you can find tailors in England, Europe or the U.S. that will produce an unbelievably soft jacket or a stiff military uniform and the same is true for almost any area around the globe. If you prefer a structured look, go for a stiffer canvas and if you prefer a jacket that feels more like a sweater than anything else, opt for a very soft canvas.
Modern Blazers are often cut very narrow and rather short. While I personally don’t think it flatters most men’s build, the choice is ultimately yours.
Where to Buy Blazers?
Unfortunately, it would be impossible to create a definitive list of quality blazers because there are simply so many manufacturers out there. If you know of good manufacturers of blazers, please share them with us in the comments?
The blazer today is an extremely versatile garment and is considered suitable attire for any situation be they casual, business casual or business informal. It can be worn with a wide variety of other clothes ranging from a shirt and tie to open necked shirts. If you are the beginning of building your wardrobe, bear in mind that the blazer will likely be your number one garment in terms of versatility.
This article is the result of a collaboration between Sven Raphael Schneider & Vikram Nanjappa.
What do you think about blazers? Do you wear them? If so, how? Please share your thoughts in the comments!